The novel is a Proustian endeavor to remember a lost passion. Adolescent Elio falls in love with the young scholar, Oliver, a summer guest at his parents’ home on the Italian Riviera, and eventually finds Oliver returning his passion. The end of summer dictates the end of the relationship and, after a final fling in Rome, Oliver returns to the States, marries and has two children.
I think the middle and last parts of the novel are stronger than the first. In the first, the other characters, such as Elio’s parents, never really come into focus. The use of Oliver’s customary curt reply “Later!” as a kind of leitmotif, perhaps modeled on Vinteuil’s musical phrase in Proust, becomes a little tiresome. The parry-and-thrust of flirtation and courtship is not particularly original.
In the last part, the description of a book launch party in Rome, and the characters that flock to the event, is rich and deft. We see the author, a Poet, hungry for praise and hiding that hunger in vain. We see the Poet’s long-suffering wife. When Elio meets Oliver years after that weekend in Rome, the encounter provokes some fine meditations on memory: Elio feels as distant from his younger self, as he does from his ex-lover. Tokens from that past—a postcard, Oliver’s shirt—become talismans for bridging the gap, but also reminders of what could have been.
I am most drawn to the middle part of the novel, to the consummation of the lovers’ mutual passion. After Elio’s first sexual experience, his denial and disgust, as he bathes in the sea, are convincingly depicted, though I don’t understand the novelistic sources of that disgust. (His parents are socially permissive and neither they nor Elio is religious.) Before that self-disgust, there is the passion, during which the fierce desire to reunite with a lost part of oneself, captured in the title, fires the sex:
From this moment on, I thought, from this moment on—I had, as I’d never before in my life, the distinct feeling of arriving somewhere very dear, of wanting this forever, of being me, me, me. me, and no one else, just me, of finding in each shiver that ran down my arms something totally alien and yet by no means unfamiliar, as if all this had been part of me all my life and I’d misplaced it and he had helped me find it. The dream had been right—this was like coming home, like asking, Where have I been all my life? which was another way of asking, Where have you been in my childhood, Oliver? which was yet another way of asking, What is life without this? which was why, in the end, it was I, and not he, who blurted out, not once, but many, many times, You’ll kill me if you stop, you’ll kill me if you stop, because it was also my way of bringing full circle the dream and the fantasy, me and him, the longed-for words from his mouth to my mouth back to his mouth, swapping words from mouth to mouth, which was when I must have begun using obscenities that he repeated after me, softly at first, till he said, “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine,” which I’d never done in my life before and which, as soon as I said my own name as though it was his, took me to a realm I never shared with anyone in my life before, or since.